“In their 24 losses, the Cavaliers have either lead or trailed by no more than six points in 20 of those contests.”
The Cavaliers put on a dazzling display against one of the team’s best for about 45 minutes. But, their offense unraveled in the final three minutes and the Hawks scored the last nine points of the game to grab a 102-94 victory in the Q to avenge Alonzo Gee’s game-winning tip earlier this season in Atlanta.
Let’s start with the fact that this was one of the most entertaining games of the season. It was a high-energy, back-and-forth affair. The Cavalier backcourt of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters went up strong against Jeff Teague and Lou Williams for the Hawks. For Waiters, nearly all of his work was done in the first half, as he scored 16 of his 18 with a couple of transition buckets mixed in with some jumpers. Dion had 6 rebounds and 4 assists to go with his 7-for-21 shooting effort as well. With Kyrie, it was the confidence in creating his shot over others and a flair for the dramatic. Irving hit a transition three-point heave from well beyond the arc as he passed two Hawks just before the halftime buzzer sounded. Irving would go on to score a game-high 28 points on 12-of-20 shooting including 4-of-7 from three point range. Kyrie had 6 boards and 5 dimes for the cause too.
At their best in this game, the Cavaliers were pouring in medium to deep jumpers in the middle of the third quarter, which helped them grab a 9-point lead. It wasn’t just Kyrie but Tyler Zeller as well, who knocked down four of them in the third quarter alone. The Cavaliers were challenging shots, forcing turnovers (the Kyrie-Dion duo combined for 7 steals in the game), and the starting five was running like a well-oiled machine. Sure, they couldn’t really get a handle on Atlanta point Jeff Teague, who posted a career-high 27 points in the game, but other than that, the wine and gold were neck and neck with a team slated to have homecourt in the first round of the playoffs if they started today.
Then a funny thing happened, the Cavaliers’ two painfully obvious, clearly evident, and jaw-droppingly inexplicable Achilles’ heels manifested themselves once more: bench play and coaching. The two overlap a bit, but let’s start with the bench. It’s not secret that the Cavs’ bench has been much maligned this season, but it’s been better overall in recent weeks. Sure, the fifth straight game without Anderson Varejao, bumping Zeller into the starting five, doesn’t help things. Still, the team has some capable players that have just been underachieving. The Cavaliers also lost Daniel Gibson to a concussion in the second quarter, so the bench was used pretty sparingly. However, when they were used, the reserves basically erased all the good the starting five had done in the previous minutes. C.J. Miles had 10 points including a pair of threes, but other than that, Gibson, Jeremy Pargo, Kevin Jones, and Luke Walton each had just two points. Things have to get better from this second unit if the Cavaliers have any hope in preventing these tough-luck losses.
That leads me into my next bone to pick: Byron Scott’s coaching effort or lack thereof. When your team is in nearly every game it has lost in the fourth quarter and they’re unable to execute in the closing minutes, that’s a painful indictment upon the job you’re doing as head coach. No one was certifiably mad enough to make these same accusations two years ago or even last season, but as the talent has gotten better on this team, the record has not.
It’s difficult to explain away how Scott thinks sitting both Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, the two young men who provide a lion’s share of your scoring prowess, for extended minutes at the same time to start the second and fourth quarters. Lately, he’s experimented with playing Dion along with the second unit to start the second quarter, but back Byron went to his old standby surefire scoring unit of Pargo, Miles, Gee, Walton, and Zeller to start the fourth. The Cavaliers lost their seven point lead in just under four minutes, and Byron actually did come back with Irving and Waiters earlier than usual (8:11 mark). For some reason though, Alonzo Gee would leave the game and not return as C.J. Miles1 played the entire fourth.
Coaching can’t explain it all away, however. Waiters missed his last eight shots of the game, though he got absolutely hammered on a couple of those with no foul call.2 Kyrie took a bad fallaway three, and he failed to takeover like we’ve seen “Mr. Fourth Quarter” do so frequently. The Cavs, in fact, shot just 24% as a team in the final quarter as they neglected to run the offense to get anybody open. Everything was one pass or less and isolation. Fewer pick and rolls, no curls or flashes through the paint to the other side, no offensive creativity of any kind. Some of that falls on Irving, but a lot more of it falls on Scott, who is continuing to allow this to happen. The Hawks also shot 60% in the fourth quarter to climb their total for the game to 49%. They hit 13 threes in all, and that helped them overcome a 2-for-12 performance from Josh Smith.
I’m not saying that Scott doesn’t deserve more time to figure out what makes his team tick. Avery Johnson was just another example yesterday of impatient front office desperate to grab eyeballs and stay relevant in a players-run league. But, Byron needs to start pulling the strings a little tighter on his team to run the offense in the last six minutes like they do in the first 42. Otherwise, this time next year, I’ll sound an awful lot like the Queen of Hearts.
(Photo: Mark Duncan/AP)